The Squid’s Ear – Joe Morris Quartet – Balance

By Brian Olewnick

Balance” reunites the Morris-led quartet that flourished in the late 90s: Morris (guitar), Mat Maneri (violin), Chris Lightcap (bass) and Gerald Cleaver (drums). As he states in the accompanying notes, Morris came into the session with some “particular melodic and phrasing ideas” but didn’t share them with the rest of the musicians, so the music is essentially free-improvised.

Freely improvised though these tracks may be, they’re decidedly jazz-based with the players dwelling in loose forms of traditional patterns, especially blues and ballads, as well as affording “solo” spaces with accompaniment; think of an extension of Jimmy Giuffre’s approach. The titles indicate the degree of seriousness at hand (“thought”, “effort”, “trust”, “purpose”, “substance” and “meaning”) and, indeed, there’s a levelheadedness and even dourness in play from the beginning, led by the leader’s guitar, the single-picked notes probing as opposed to ecstatic, sending slender icicles of sound into the corners, hard-edged and curious, searching out what’s hidden there.

Indeed, Morris is especially fluid throughout, negotiating promising pathways within the sounds created by the other three, only upping the urgency level when the environment calls for it. Maneri strikes this listener as more effective on the slower, more balladic pieces, where he allows a modicum of melodicism into his otherwise quite astringent playing. Lightcap is fine, providing a nice lurching quality on the more up-tempo tracks as well as tonal counterweight to guitar and violin. If I have a qualm, it’s that Cleaver remains too much in “drummer” mode for a free session, not quite generating steady rhythms but tending to remain somewhere between there and creating more purer sound contributions that may have helped float the overall music; as is, I often found the tone to balance, as it were, on some halfway point, neither here nor there. But perhaps that’s what Morris and company were aiming for, that area of uncertainty. An intriguing, largely enjoyable date, certainly a mandatory pick-up for Morris fans.

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